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The American Megafauna

Updated on June 1, 2014

How Humans First Reached America, and What They Saw...

Introduction

Today in the 21st Century, the United States has two national holidays to celebrate the arrival of Europeans (Columbus Day and Thanksgiving) but strangely none to commemorate the much earlier and altogether spectacular discovery of the Americas by its own indigenous people. The first Native Americans were among the hardiest people ever to live on the planet, descended from Siberian hunters who lived and thrived in probably the least hospitable environment on the planet.

Around 13,000 years ago, humans travelled across the Bering Strait on foot, crossing from what is now Russia into modern Alaska. At the time, most of the far north of America was frozen solid under a mile of ice, thus explaining why the first Native Americans were able to walk across relatively easily. There was though a tiny corner of North America that was free of ice, a narrow corridor of dry land called Beringia in the far North-West of the continent, that allowed the first Americans to traverse southwards with relative ease.

Ultimately these human pioneers would come to identified by a single tool, a long, sharp spearhead known as the Clovis point named after the New Mexico town where it was first found in 1968, since then they have been found in every US state below Alaska. These distinctive stone points appear suddenly in the archaeological record about 13,000 years ago and were usually attached to a long dart shaft and launched with an atlatl or spear-thrower. It seems as if they were used specifically for hunting large animals, as many have been found with or even embedded in the bones of large herbivores such as mammoths.

The people who originally discovered America found a virgin continent, where no man had ever trodden before, it was the biggest discovery in human history, with the Clovis people laying claim to a quarter of the Earth’s surface. It won’t be until our species prints its feet on other planets, that we’ll acquire such a vast amount of territory again. Furthermore, the Clovis people discovered what could only be described as a super Serengeti, a land stocked full of large animals, the likes of which no human eye had ever seen before. Below I shall explain more about the magnificent animals that inhabited the North American continent at the time of its discovery by humans.

The Elephants

A herd of woolly mammoths walking across the tundra watched by some American lions.
A herd of woolly mammoths walking across the tundra watched by some American lions. | Source
The mastodon was the smallest of the elephants and was more of a browser than a grazer.
The mastodon was the smallest of the elephants and was more of a browser than a grazer. | Source
The colombian mammoth was one of the largest mammals to walk the earth, weighing over 13 tonnes and measuring more than twice the size of a grown man at the shoulder.
The colombian mammoth was one of the largest mammals to walk the earth, weighing over 13 tonnes and measuring more than twice the size of a grown man at the shoulder. | Source

The American Horse

An artists restoration of Equus scotti, the indigenous American horse.
An artists restoration of Equus scotti, the indigenous American horse. | Source

Americans in Africa

The ancestors of the zebra originally evolved in North America some 4 million years ago, before migrating to Eurasia and Africa, evolving and adapting along the way.
The ancestors of the zebra originally evolved in North America some 4 million years ago, before migrating to Eurasia and Africa, evolving and adapting along the way. | Source

The Long Horned Bison

The skull of the long horned bison, the giant cousin of today's modern bison.
The skull of the long horned bison, the giant cousin of today's modern bison. | Source

The Last Surviving American Camel

The guanaco is the ancestor of the domestic llama and a close relative of the camels. Its the last camelid living wild in the Americas today.
The guanaco is the ancestor of the domestic llama and a close relative of the camels. Its the last camelid living wild in the Americas today. | Source

A Deer or a Moose?

This weird creature known as the stag-moose had a moose like body, with a head and antlers more typical of a deer.
This weird creature known as the stag-moose had a moose like body, with a head and antlers more typical of a deer. | Source

America's Giant Herbivores

Imagine being able to travel back in time 13,000 years into North America’s past; what sort of sights and creatures would be there to greet you. Today it’s difficult to imagine just how amazing and untamed everything was; in the present era unfortunately the American megafauna are so diminished that to actually see one for real is a rare and often moving experience. But the eyes of those first Paleo-explorers saw wonders that seem scarcely believable in our modern, crowded and urbanised world.

In some respects, the New World of 13,000 years ago or the Pleistocene era as it’s more commonly known was very much like the New World we are familiar with today. Almost all of the plants, small animals and insects that live and thrive today, did so back then, albeit in slightly different locations due to the fact that on average the world was around ten degrees cooler than today, meaning that Polar animals for example would have ranged much further south than they do at present.

So, onto those fascinating, now extinct monsters, that still capture imaginations today. I shall begin by outlining the various large herbivores that roamed across North America. Today, whenever we think of elephants, we think of those majestic, oddly graceful slabs of flesh moving slowly across the African savannah. Africa today is home to two kinds of elephant, the famous savannah elephant and the less familiar forest elephant that roam widely across the vast forests of the Congo. America though, wasn’t just home to one, two, or even three, but an incredible five different species of elephant. Of the five, the most famous of these was the woolly mammoth; it lived on the frigid Arctic tundra on the margins of the coniferous forests. It was actually smaller than its contemporaries, rarely measuring more than 9 feet at the shoulder and weighing around 8 tons. The frozen remains of these creatures reveal that they had a dense coat varying in colour from dark brown to almost black, with an undercoat wool 4 inches thick that offered it greater protection from the cold, as did its short ears and comparatively smaller trunk. Like their close relatives they spent their days grazing the tough grasses of the ice age tundra, spending up to 12 hours a day gathering an estimated 400Ib’s worth of food.

Another famous elephant, or to put it more accurately a close relative of the elephants was the mastodon. These creatures were lighter in colouring than the mammoths, and only grew to about 8 feet, and weighing in at 4-6 tons. They preferred to live in woodlands, and as result may have lived in smaller herds. Analysis of their teeth suggests that they were browsers, feeding on trees and shrubs rather than grass. They were, probably the equivalent of Africa’s forest elephants which are much smaller than their open country cousins.

The biggest animal living on the continent was the Columbian mammoth, and indeed was one of the largest mammals to ever walk the Earth. It measured up to 13 feet at the shoulder and weighed in at 10 tonnes. In order to support such an incredible bulk, they needed to eat around 500Ib’s of grasses and sedges each day, supplemented with spruce tips, oak leaves, sagebrush, cattails and even prickly pear cacti, all of which have been found in their dung. They were less hairy than woolly mammoths and had longer, more curved tusks. They were probably the most adaptable of all the elephants, thriving in deserts, grasslands and parklands. Their 15 foot long tusks are thought to have served as some sort of social function as well as providing defence against predators.

As well as elephants, North America was home to a staggering variety of hoofed animals. Today, most American schoolchildren learn that the horse was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish, but few realise that in fact the Spanish were unintentionally reintroducing the horse back to the land of its evolutionary origin. Modern horses, including zebras actually first appeared in the New World some 4 million years ago before migrating across the rest of the world. So, the next time you go on safari and observe the zebras, you’re seeing a small piece of America transported onto the African plains. Pleistocene America was home to five kinds of horse, including one that may have looked like a zebra.

There were also many species of camel, another animal with its evolutionary origins in the New World, they were specialists in coping in an environment subject to sudden change, and were also adept at surviving in arid environments just like their modern relatives. The biggest of the camels was a cold adapted, one humped creature called Yesterday’s camel which had legs 20 per cent longer than its modern relatives. In the modern era, the America’s boasts two camel species, the vicuna and guanaco, the wild ancestors of domestic llamas and alpacas respectfully.

The extraordinary hoofed menagerie was completed by various species of pronghorn antelope that lived alongside their modern cousins, an archaic form of moose with deer like antlers, a creature related to the musk ox that dwelt in woodland, a large mountain goat, a huge beaver the size of a bear, pigs, tapirs and the enormous long horned bison which was much larger than its modern relative, it also possessed larger, straighter horns that spanned more than 7 feet from tip to tip. They would have been the equivalent of Africa’s Cape buffalo, fulfilling a similar ecological niche, and just like their African kin they would have occasionally fallen prey to large feline predators- a mummified corpse of young long horned bison actually had a tooth fragment embedded in its flank from one such predator.

The Cats

A reconstruction of smilodon
A reconstruction of smilodon | Source
The American scimitar cat, also known as Homotherium.
The American scimitar cat, also known as Homotherium. | Source
A reconstruction of the American Lion, the biggest cat of them all.
A reconstruction of the American Lion, the biggest cat of them all. | Source

When Scimitar Cats Roamed Dallas

The Biggest of Them All

The short faced bear, the biggest mammalian carnivore to ever hunt on land.
The short faced bear, the biggest mammalian carnivore to ever hunt on land. | Source

When Humans Met the Bear

The Real Thunderbird?

The magnificant teratorn- one of the biggest birds ever to take to the air and the possible source for the famous Thunderbird legend.
The magnificant teratorn- one of the biggest birds ever to take to the air and the possible source for the famous Thunderbird legend. | Source

American Predators

Such a huge menagerie of herbivores meant that North America boasted an equally impressive collection of carnivores. Pleistocene North America was home to an impressive suite of big cats, including some of the largest the world has ever seen. Among them, were the sabre-toothed cats including the American sabre-tooth, known as Smilodon, as well as the American scimitar cat or Homotherium, these cats gained the name from their strange, serrated canines which formed terrifying slicing weapons rather like steak knives. It stood at around 3.5 feet at the shoulder and weighed in at up to 550Ib. In build it was similar to a hyena, with slender front legs and shorter front legs. Its claws were semi-retractable like the modern cheetah suggesting that it was a fast runner. According to fossil analysis, it seems that the scimitar cat specialised in killing young elephants, probably waiting for them to become separated from their mothers or herds before striking. The cat’s serrated teeth were designed specifically for ripping through tough elephant hides. It’s possible that this creature hunted in packs or prides using teamwork to separate young elephants away from their parents.

Living alongside the sabre-tooth’s were cats that would strike us as almost disturbingly familiar, there was an American lion, which weighed up to 1100Ib’s making it twice the size of its modern relatives, there was even an American cheetah, which explains why the modern pronghorn is the second fastest animal on the planet, it needed to be quick to evade the cheetah. Incidentally the cheetah was the only cat genera to actually originate in North America before migrating to Africa around 2 million years ago, where, of course its descendents survive to this day. The cheetah actually shares a close relationship with the cougar; the small head and long tail serve as evidence of their close relationship.

But that wasn’t it, for the first Americans also lived alongside lynxes and bobcats, as well as many cats now restricted to the tropics such as jaguars, ocelots, jaguarondis, river cats and margays. Such a diverse range of cats living in one place at the same time was only possible due to the vast numbers of plant eaters roaming the landscape.

Alongside the cats, lived the dogs and the bears; the first Americans would have glimpsed many such creatures that still live today such as the grey and red wolf, the coyote, and seven species of bear. They may have been astonished by the sight of the now extinct dire wolf, which was similar to the grey wolf, but around 25 per cent larger. But dwarfing all of the predators mentioned so far was the giant short faced bear, probably the largest mammalian predator to ever stalk the Earth. It grew to a terrifying size, about the size of a horse when standing on four legs, and reaching 15 feet when standing erect. Like its cousins it would have probably been more of a scavenger than a pure predator, using its enormous, sensitive nose to seek out carrion. Its sheer size and bulk would have been enough to ward off any competitors and its enormous bone crunching jaws meant that it could feast upon almost all of a carcass. The first Americans must have lived in fear of it; some scientists even go as far as saying that this terrifying monster delayed the arrival of humans in North America.

North America was also home to an impressive collection of large predatory birds including many species of vulture and eagle, as well as the teratorns, the largest flying birds of all time. They actually evolved in South America initially before migrating into North America. The largest species present in the North at the time was the incredible teratorn which boasted a 16 foot wingspan, much bigger than any living bird, but it was a mere dwarf compared to its South American relative, the magnificent teratorn whose wingspan of 39 feet was as large as a small aeroplane. Scientists though, are puzzled as to exactly what these birds did, did they predate on small mammals or were they colossal rubbish disposal machines? It’s still uncertain.

Three Fantastic Books

Monsters We Met
Monsters We Met

A fantastic review of the megafauna that we encountered and what caused their extinction.

 
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples
The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

An awesome book from Tim Flannery that tells the story of North America from the extinction of the dinosaurs to the present. It gives detailed information on the Pleistocene Megafauna.

 
Twilight of the Mammoths:: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (Organisms and Environments)
Twilight of the Mammoths:: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (Organisms and Environments)

Another detailed review of the Pleistocene Megafauna by the late, great Paul Martin.

 

The South American Megafauna as shown in Walking With Beasts: Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

South American Oddities

Many of the large animals of South America would have been identical to North America, but there were also some very different, odd and unique characters which I shall outline here. The first are the very famous ground sloths, they were easily one of the strangest animals encountered by the first Americans. There were five different species ranging from lion sized to monstrous elephant sized giants. Each species was specially adapted for a certain habitat, they were also among the few South American animals that successfully colonised North America, with some ground sloths adapting to the frigid cold of Alaska where they browsed on shrubs and other hardy plants. They could raise themselves onto trunk like hind legs, which allowed them to feed among the trees and defend themselves against the fearsome American predators. The remains of some individuals are so well preserved that tendons and skin are still present, and the dung smells fresh when moistened.

Another strange South American oddity was the glyptodonts, enormous relatives of the armadillo, with some growing to the size of a family car. These lumbering, slow moving herbivores were heavily armoured, protected by a shell made up of bony polygons all bound together by collagen, making them look like a little like enormous tortoises. Their tails were protected by rings of armour near the bases, and in one species at least the tail was tipped with a spiked ball reminiscent of a mace. It was almost as if evolution had revived the armoured dinosaur in mammalian form.

South America was also home to giant rodents similar to the modern capybara, strange herbivores called litopterns which looked curiously like llamas, but were totally unrelated and also possessed a curious tapir like nose, there was also the toxodon, another strange mammal totally unrelated to anything alive today but may have resembled a hornless rhino.

Perhaps the strangest animal of all was the flightless bird Titanis; I suppose the best way to describe this bird is to say imagine something like a secretary bird, but the size of a grown man, with a larger, more powerful beak, and an insatiable appetite for mammals. Titanis originally evolved in South America, and was the top predator there for 40 million years, before the joining of the American continents saw the arrival of the cats who quickly established themselves as top predators. Titanis though, managed to survive, occupying a new niche as a scavenger, it even managed to spread north, colonising what is now Texas. It survived right up to the time that the first humans ventured into the Americas; it’s not known for sure whether man and Titanis actually met. But if they did, it would have been the closest any humans got to meeting a real life dinosaur.

The Oddities

A reconstruction of one of the giant ground sloths.
A reconstruction of one of the giant ground sloths. | Source
This is doedicurus, the giant relative of the armadillo with its fearsome spiked tail.
This is doedicurus, the giant relative of the armadillo with its fearsome spiked tail. | Source
Another species of giant armadillo known as the glyptodon.
Another species of giant armadillo known as the glyptodon. | Source
This is Macruchenia- the last surviving litoptern species, which survived until 13,000 years ago.
This is Macruchenia- the last surviving litoptern species, which survived until 13,000 years ago. | Source
Another oddity, this time the lumbering rhino sized toxodon.
Another oddity, this time the lumbering rhino sized toxodon. | Source
Finally, a seven foot high avian predator that would have been the closest humans ever came to meeting a dinosaur.
Finally, a seven foot high avian predator that would have been the closest humans ever came to meeting a dinosaur. | Source

End Note

This concludes my profile on the American megafauna, I shall compile profiles of the megafauna that lived on the other continents during the Pleistocene epoch (1.8 million years ago-10,000 years ago) before investigating why these huge, strange and fierce creatures suddenly became extinct after millions of years of success.


More to follow...

© 2012 James Kenny

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    • Vin Chauhun profile image

      Vin Chauhun 4 years ago from Durban

      interestin' as always, if the humans had all this meat on legs, wouldn't there have been an increase in the human population too....I think the predators died thru alcak of prey species and disease. The mega herbivores could have faced pressures from humans but i don't think it was enough to be the main cause of their extinction.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Vin, apparently the human population initially was around 200 but ballooned to around 70,000 in just a few hundred years, thanks to the abundance of game. I think most scientists favour a combination of causes rather than just one sole cause, but it is highly coincidental that the megafauna died out just as humans appeared, despite surviving climatic changes for millions of years.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      I can understand humans delaying their journey to America because of that huge bear. I would not have been in any great rush myself.

      Thanks James for another magnificent article and great pictures.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Christopher, yes me too. Its wonder those first Americans ever managed to pluck up the courage to enter the domain of the short faced bear. As always, I appreciate you stopping by my friend.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 4 years ago from Slaton, Texas USA

      I have to admit, I really love your Hubs. Even if they're not on subjects that usually interest me, you manage to make them informative and I love the way you write. Thank you for yet another amazing Hub!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Georgie, wow I really appreciate your kind words, especially when you've taken the time to read about a subject that doesn't normally strike your interest. Thanks very much.

    • profile image

      whowas 4 years ago

      Wow and WOW! I loved that so much - what a great hub. I wish there were more like that. Smilodon was always my favorite when I was a kid, although I subsequently became more interested in ornithology (so I also appreciated your account of Teratorn and Titanis).

      I came here following Georgie and boy am I glad I did, thanks to both of you.

      Voted up and everything (apart from funny...) Looking forward to the rest of this fabulous (actually factual, hmm) series. Top Hubber!

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      How can I find an adjective good enough?

      http://www.wacocvb.com/trip_builder/attractions.as...

      I've never got to see the place above...but my parents have, and incidentally enough, that is where they learned to believe in evolution.

      If you ever make it to Texas - then I'd recommend the place, my Mum was so impressed by the entire thing she lost her adjectives too.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi whowas, I'm also a great lover of ornithology as well, as some of my other hubs suggest hehehe. I'm currently writing about the Australian megafauna, and can I tell you that as a fellow ornithologist, you'll love it more than this one. Thank you.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Wesman, just had a brief look at the link and it certainly looks an interesting. If I ever take a trip to the States then I'll definitely head there. Thanks very much.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I'd toss some cold ones back with ya! Assuming you'd go for that :)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hehehe, yeah I'd like that. I don't mind a little alcohol now and then :) Look forward to it.

    • profile image

      Brittni 4 years ago

      Hi JKenny

      Good piece on one of my favorite subjects. However, the time frame for humans in America is a bit outdated. Clovis was used as a reference point for many years, but in the past two decades numerous preclovis sites have been discovered. While the ones dated more than thirty thousand years ago are still under debate and skepticism, many dated from 16,000-20,00 years ago are accepted as being legitimately dated. There are also several crossing theories about the paths taken into the Americas. You can find such information by searching for 'preclovis', a term that is widely gaining in popularity and legitimacy. In fact, last year A&M dated one site at about 15,500 years, a find I suspect will continue to discovered many times over in the future. http://www.sciencenewsline.com/articles/2011032513...

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much for commenting Brittni, I've heard a lot about supposed pre clovis sites. I even watched a documentary that postulated the first Americans crossed the Atlantic from Europe in canoes. The theory was based mostly on the fact that the clovis stone points resembled similar tools found in France. I personally tend to treat pre clovis sites with a little bit of scepticism, but who knows people could have been living in America for much longer than we thought. Thank you for the link, I'll check it out.

    • profile image

      Brittni 4 years ago

      The Clovis-First Theory has been refuted for several reasons, the least of which is the theory is forty years old and an immense amount of research has been done between then and now. In the beginning, questioning the theory had people laughed out of the field; it was prominent and widely accepted. However, it also had many, many flaws, one of which is no Clovis-like points have been found in Siberia. Monte Verde was inspected by skeptics themselves and determined to be a preclovis site at 14,220 years old. It wasn't until then that it became acceptable to challenge the CFT. Because of the prominence of the Clovis-First Theory, it has taken decades of hard work and insistence to gain recognition of other older sites. However, preclovis findings are now being taught in colleges across the country. As with many inaccurate scientific beliefs, they tend to take a while to disappear, not unlike the Pluto controversy when it was deemed a plutoid over being a planet.

      It's also believed America was settled multiple times by different groups of people based on Mitochondrial DNA on skeletal remains. Through its use, five separate haplogroups have been identified in early American populations, which is also indicative of preclovis cultures and multiple migrations.

      Above all, what we have to realize about science is one finding does not negate the legitimacy of future findings that predate or postdate the discovery, but rather adds to the chronological record more pieces of the story behind the evolution of Us.

    • AnimalWrites profile image

      AnimalWrites 4 years ago from Planet Earth

      Fascinating round up of the American megafauna, JKenny and wouldn't it be great if we could go back in time and go on safari and see all of these beasts. There's lots of theories as to why the died out, but the arrival of a new breed of voracious hunter (us) at the same time, surely can't be a coincidence.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks AnimalWrites, yes the fact they died out just after humans arrived, after surviving for millions is too much of a coincidence. In my mind there's little doubt that humans played a significant role in the demise of the megafauna.

    • profile image

      Mark 3 years ago from California

      There is a place in the mainland USA where you can still see most of the surviving megafauna, that is like going on an American safari. Yellowstone has many different large North American animals that are easily seen by tourists. You will not see Mammoths or sabre toothed cats, but you will see herds of bison, wolves, antelope, elk, deer, grizzly bears, black bears, foxs, coyotes, otters, moose, if you are really lucky even a mountain lion(puma, cougar).

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Indeed and the return of the wolf to Yellowstone has had marvelous effect on the ecosystem, keeping the numbers of elk, bison and other large herbivores in check. Here in Britain some of us are trying to bring wolves back to Scotland to try to control the burgeoning numbers of red deer that stop the famous Caledonian forest from regenerating.

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